Indigenous engineer Deanna Burgart’s work mentoring women and Indigenous youth in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) disciplines and her 20+ years of experience working in upstream oil and gas was a natural lead up to founding Indigenous Engineering Inclusion Inc.
Burgart now consults, providing training, workshops and speaking to post-secondary institutions and STEM-based organizations. Her work is focused on bringing the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Calls to Action into day to day operations and bringing more Indigenous perspectives into business and the education of these professionals.
“I’d love to see a culture shift in the spaces where Indigenous youth coming into - STEM organizations and educators – to allow for Indigenous world views and perspectives to coexist with western viewpoints,” she says of her passion for the work.
Battling barriers for Indigenous youth in STEM
Having Indigenous youth going into STEM-based education and professions comes with some barriers, and it’s not just the lack of including Indigenous world views in organizations and education spaces. Indigenous role models and leaders in the field are few and far between. Of the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Alberta’s (APEGA’s) 70, 000 members, only 323 self-identify as Indigenous.
“One of the barriers for Indigenous youth in STEM- and there are many – is the lack of role models in which they can see themselves reflected. That’s why it’s so important to me to create a community of Indigenous STEM professionals. So, we can support each other, amplify our voices and the youth can see the many different opportunities for them,” says Burgart.
Promoting Indigenous STEM role models
To that end, Burgart spends a lot of time working with Indigenous youth to promote Indigenous STEM professions and professionals. She has been involved with IndigeSTEAM on K-12 outreach programs, summer camps and community outreach. Her work on the Canadian Indigenous Advisory Council, known as CIAC (pronounced kayak), has recently formed to advise the American Indian Science and Engineering Society on how to better than serve Canadian members. Last year, this work included promoting a national gathering for Indigenous STEM post-secondary students and professionals at Mount Royal University in Calgary, AB. This annual gathering has been dubbed .caISES (the Canadian Indigenous Science and Engineering Society. This year, it was hosted by McGill University in Montreal where it was announced that the 2020 .caISES gathering will be hosted in Saskatoon by the University of Saskatchewan.
“The feedback we got from the students was just absolutely heartwarming. They were so excited to come meet other students and professionals and see themselves reflected in leaders,” says Burgart of the conference.
“I had one student say to me: ‘This can be a really isolating journey being the only Indigenous student in my class in engineering. To meet other people that I can relate to has made a huge difference’.”
A collaborative and diverse approach to innovating in Alberta
Creating these opportunities and promoting dialogue around Indigenous viewpoints and perspectives is something Burgart is pleased to see be more and more common in our modern vernacular - and in particular - in conversation in Alberta.
“We are seeing quite a shift in the last few years, that brings people together from diverse backgrounds and encourages a collaborative approach to moving forward and to innovating,” she says.
“I have been involved with the Energy Futures Lab here in Alberta, a fellowship of people who have come together to talk about the biggest challenges in the energy sector and what does energy transition look like for Alberta. The conversations have really started to change, and people have started to say ‘Okay how I am going to innovate to continue to stay relevant as we continue to go through this transition?’”
The key to being able to innovate, in Burgart’s opinion, is to create spaces where diverse perspectives are included, and Indigenous viewpoints bring unique solutions to complex problems.
“Indigenous people have been STEM professionals and innovators for thousands of years before contact. We are inherently connected to the land and sciences. We just didn’t use the western words to describe it.”
3 pieces of advice for Indigenous youth interested in STEM:
- Use your voice and be yourself. There’s so much pressure to conform to existing cultures and businesses and often Indigenous people don’t feel like they fit in.
- Find a group of like-minded people to connect with to recharge, to not feel as isolated. If you can’t find a group you can connect with, create one! It’s so important to not feel alone in this journey.
- Keep learning. Be open to receiving as well as sharing knowledge and perspectives you have. Everyone we meet has something to teach us.